Now we can consider whether what we are proposing is so different from reality as described by some of the major religions that have survived throughout centuries, at least partly because people have found powerful inspiration in them. There is no hope of reconciling these systems of belief, some of whose claims of what reality is contradict one another, but there is a close correspondence in how they teach people to act, and alarm bells should go off if our description of reality encouraged very different actions. I would expect our insights to resonate with various religious teachings, if not systematically, since I don’t think people through the ages would accept or verify these systems if a good deal of the teachings stood in opposition to the way life unfolds.
I am not suggesting an exhaustive comparison here, but a survey of some key ideas. And I will confine myself to the two religions I can say anything about — Christianity, in which I have invested much time and energy from childhood, and Buddhism, which I have learned only a little about on my own but long felt an affinity toward.
I think it is wise to take up the latter first, because I have no doubt that some will think this whole discussion proceeds from it. Of course it does not, and I could not pull off such a feat even if I wanted to. We started essentially from scratch, from the simple observation that human history has failed to produce a sustained constructive momentum despite all manner of inspiring teachings and examples. Early in our considerations we reached a fork in the road and chose, or assumed, that life is a unitary impulse. There was actually little choice, however, as the other options preclude objective discussion.
If we ended up deriving anything that seems to fit in well with Buddhism, it is because reality is the way it is and religions that have withstood the test of centuries have done so because they communicate at least some significant aspects of reality very well. In this case, the impermanence of the individual, or lack of an eternal soul, is a shared insight. The other main parallel I would identify is with the Buddhist concept of codependent origination, at least in my limited understanding of it. Certainly we are saying that all of creation arises together, or evolves out of one movement.
If, however, we have at least two areas that seem to overlap strongly, we have not gone down the karmic road to justice or found it necessary to bring reincarnation into the picture. Interestingly, the well-respected Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa, who died in 1993, spoke about reincarnation in a way quite different from the ordinary understanding. Amid some popular silliness about a way to determine how many lifetimes one had left before attaining nirvana, he countered that one could be reborn several times in a day.
Put this way, reincarnation fits in perfectly with what we have said, since self is essentially memory, the collection of stored thoughts and experiences, and hence changes with each new thought or experience. You could view this either as continual rebirth, or as incremental rebirth marked whenever change builds to a certain threshold. I think Buddhadasa meant something long these lines, but that is just an interesting aside. We see how the self is an illusion that can be reformulated at will, as through the dynamic of identification or as a natural development in the course of life experience.
So we might have come up with a more reasonable understanding of reincarnation than one finds in popular Buddhism, but there is no way to reconcile the idea of karma, which is impossibly complicated. Even more, we have not found any need to follow rules or any program of action. Buddhism might be much more flexible than Christianity on this point, but as a system it is a program to be accomplished rather than a reference to be consulted. Reality works the other way.
Right action, right speech, nonviolence and the rest do not lead one toward enlightenment; seeing reality as it is leads one to ways of acting that help life evolve consciously as a whole. The difference might seem subtle, but following any system, whether you think it is right or hope it will do something for you, is not taking reality at face value. Ideology of any kind filters reality, predetermining what you are willing to see. This puts your mind as a judge of reality rather than a perceiver. It also is the seed from which intolerance can grow in the minds of those who have no direct spiritual connection but seek to perpetuate their imagined perfect world through ritual magic, however well disguised, or obedience/obeisance to a divine being who might otherwise punish them for eternity. Buddhism is relatively immune to the second of these aberrations, but militant theists see no problem in boxing God into the most narrow of confines, claiming to know divine ways and plans in surprising detail, usually through some revelation that they have interpreted without the slightest possibility of error. Defining reality according to one’s beliefs easily becomes a mandate to stop, by any means necessary, anyone who might ruin the pseudo-magical spell or bring down the wrath of God.
The bottom line is that we are definitely not proposing any kind of religion, ideology or system. There is no special knowledge or mythology that needs to be learned or taught by some privileged class of monks, priests or what have you. There is simply reality and being open to it by not following any beliefs that attempt to define, categorize or otherwise limit it.
So I think it is clear enough that while we can agree with perhaps the most basic tenets of Buddhism, we are not proposing Buddhism. On the other hand, the differences would not cause us to act very differently. Our concept of justice would lead us to the same loving-kindness taught as a Buddhist ideal. It even resonates in some ways with the boddhisatva ideal, in which an enlightened being chooses not to enter nirvana until all other beings do so, however long this takes.
What then of Christianity, which spells out everyone’s place and accountability, along with rewards and punishment, in a well-defined cosmic hierarchy? Clearly there is no room for such a hierarchy if life is a unitary impulse. And we could even go one step further and note that the whole enterprise of ontology, defining what things really are in themselves, has no meaning when any “thing” is simply a temporary part of an unrealized whole, existing as some kind of permanent entity only in our delusion.
The significance here reaches quite far, since we are not talking about any particular ontology, but all attempts to say what is. What we are in effect proposing is that no thing has permanence, so there is no point arguing about what anything really is or is not. Life is in flux, with no predetermined end, so useful discussion can be limited to what is happening, what the various forms life is taking right now are doing.
We are presenting life as a verb rather than a collection of nouns. We have only what is happening and how this affects what will or could happen. (Of course, what is happening bears imprints from what has already happened.) So, with this in mind, let’s consider some basic teachings of Christianity from an action-oriented view.
Christianity is about love more than anything else. Three of the four canonical Gospels have Jesus answering or affirming that the greatest commandment is (or the greatest commandments are) to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The fourth, John’s Gospel, in which the word love probably appears more frequently than in any other writing of such widely acknowledged importance, has Jesus proclaim to his disciples a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them. Jesus’ incarnation, passion and death are interpreted as manifestations of God’s boundless love, even if the sacrificial idea of somehow appeasing Adam and Eve’s effrontery has produced some of the most tortured mental convolutions that humans have dared to profess as profoundly meaningful.
Any Christian authority is free to dispute the conclusion, but Christianity is based on love. It originates in the love of God, which inspires a reciprocal love among God’s sentient creatures for God and all that God has created. We too have found love to be the root motivating force, the basis of ethics and justice, but without the need to refer it to any supernatural origin. Instead, it is the natural attraction all sentient manifestations of the unitary impulse of life feel toward the rest of life. For now I will repeat only that I see little or no difference between life as a unitary impulse and God as the ultimate ground of life, so long as one does not make God in our image as a being who plays favorites, dispensing rewards and punishments at will while various and sundry interpreters speak for Him (or Her), even daring to claim a unique authority in this.
Additionally, I see no significant difference between what we have derived and what Christianity teaches about how to act. Whether children of one God or part of one life, we act justly out of that unity, although the consequences are essentially different. Whereas Christianity leaves it to God to sort everything out in the end, such that each individual is rewarded or punished according to their deeds, we are saying that we all share the consequences in the larger sense, and that rights and wrongs are not balanced at the individual level. Our view of our “final destiny” is open-ended. Instead of each person ending up as an eternal resident of heaven or hell, we either have a future or we don’t.
Where I see a most interesting correlation with Christianity is in the concept of original sin. Admittedly, the idea of all of humanity essentially being cursed because the first man and first lady disobeyed a random rule of paradise and ate some fruit makes no sense. Of course, it was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and this does offer a much more interesting explanation for the human predicament than disobedience, but that is not what we are considering here. (The popular recognition of the fruit as an apple, according to Stewart Lee Allen in his book In the Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food, commemorates Christianity’s suppression of the Druid religion, which he says held the apple tree sacred.) But we did begin our investigation by searching for some basic flaw that could account for our undeniable inability to go beyond self-interest as well as the logically consistent recourse to brutality and self-indulgence that have characterized human history. And we found it in the rather subtle mental error of the emerging mind identifying the physical body and brain as the essential self. This is a natural and understandable error that arises out of the power and normal functioning of the human brain. In this sense it qualifies as an organic equivalent to the concept of original sin, except that it makes perfect sense. The practical consequences are the same: we naturally act out of self-interest to the detriment of others, even against God’s will in Christian terms.
But “original error,” as we might call it (and hence bring Buddhism and Christianity that much closer), also differs from original sin in at least two significant ways. Most importantly, it contains the seed of its undoing. It is not something hardwired into us but a natural misstep, an error, just like a baby stumbling while learning to walk. There is no need for redemption from the outside, since all we need to do is stop trying to force reality to fit our erroneous self-image. The incessant contradictions between reality and individual self-identity can lead us to the questions that will dissolve the wall of self and correct the error that built them.
The second difference I would point to, really just an extension of the first, is that original error is not absolute; it is possible that a mind might not fall into it. In this I am thinking not so much of the birth of some all-but-impossible pure being, but of minds that do not follow the normal course of development. It is quite conceivable that a developmental disability could leave someone without a strong sense of identification with self. In fact, we could almost predict that this would be the case in some instances. The error requires experience and comes into play only during development, so only the potential for it is present at birth and this could remain latent rather than active. As well, its strength could depend to some extent on how much others reinforce it.
The key point is that original error is only latent, not innate, and needs correcting only to the extent it occurs. The strength of the error and the tenacity of the illusion it produces are as linked to the particular life circumstances in which they arise as are the particular experiences and insights that expose it.
So we have alternative explanations for the love that lies at the heart of Christianity and the fundamental insight that something in our very makeup prevents us from attaining the fullness of life that could be ours and needs to be removed.
We have already dismissed the idea of dealing with ontological claims, but even were a sentient divinity to exist along the lines set out by the monotheistic religions, I would question any attempt to justify judgment based on what one believes as opposed to what one does. In fact, the final judgment Jesus describes toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel does place the emphasis on deeds. But there is another difference worth mentioning, especially since it has become somewhat of a bogeyman in certain religious circles. The dirty word, which we already have acknowledged, is relativity, which in a mathematical sense stood science on its head a century ago. We have derived love as the ground of action, and this urges against harming or destroying any other manifestation of life, our true self, except for the gravest reasons. But in the absence of a divine judge or rule giver, or automated accounting system, we have no absolute reference.
Without any absolutes, are we left with only chaos? No, even if our future is not assured. We have replaced morality with responsibility. Rather than an abstract freedom to do good or evil, we are bound to the consequences of our actions, the actions of all humanity. We can continue to play Russian roulette with reality by indulging our “freedom,” or we can acknowledge the need to weigh alternatives as best we can and follow the path of love and the greatest good. So our moral or ethical relativity in fact leads either to peril through selfishness or to furtherance of life’s evolutionary journey through true selflessness. Chaos will result only if we choose it. Or we can choose to claim our birthright as life in all its fullness.
We undoubtedly will make mistakes. But freed from self-deception, we can analyze the consequences and learn from them in a way much more likely to produce life-affirming results than our legacy of beautiful but failed teachings, especially when undercut by fantasy hopes that a compassionate divinity will absolve us — or only some of us — of the consequences of our actions.